July 20, 2010

mercator-songs.jpg

You can’t just go around asking people why they’re black, Douglas Martin!

In the wake of indie-rock’s current proliferation of small-scale acts and labels, and nostalgia for 90s ‘zine culture, Pitchfork made a power-play by launching Altered Zones, a collective featuring some of the most consistent and esoteric names on the web. For those names, Altered Zones is a springboard for added exposure. For Pitchfork, it’s a calculated attempt to commodify the indie genre (again) by gathering a syndicate of gifted bloggers, thus stopping the internet from having a true alternative to the site and making themselves more marketable by being more “authentic”. The path that Altered Zones has blazed in the scant two weeks since its launch has spawned intense discussion, a whole mess of page views, and a shockingly high number of mp3 blogger bridesmaids outraged that they weren’t invited to the party. All of it smacks of what would happen if The Plastics put two tables together in the lunchroom during Mean Girls.

As a member of the site’s target demographic (no disrespect to any of the bloggers involved; I just have a spade in my hand), Altered Zones would be right up my alley if it weren’t candy-dipped with a pretty sizable amount of contrivance. If Pitchfork represents the evil empire nature of the New York Yankees, Altered Zones is its farm team. Chris Cantalini of Gorilla vs. Bear has always appeared as though he could make a wicked diving catch in centerfield.

Which indirectly leads me the inside cover of Mercator Songs, where Meridian Signals proprietor Michael Powell thanks Kevin Shields for teaching him how to play the guitar. It’s notably evident that the My Bloody Valentine frontman is an incredibly huge influence throughout the record. That particular inspiration, however, is not carbon-copied like so many other indie bands, but filtered through a prism of something else entirely, ala M83. Most artists use the realm of ambient, noise, and drone music as fancy window-dressing or to disguise a lack of genuine musical chops (myself steadfastly included), but as the editor of my favorite music blog, The Decibel Tolls, it’s abundantly clear that Powell really understands these genres.

Throughout Mercator Songs, guitars swirl and drone underneath the oscillating hum of white noise, with everything from synthesizers to taped recordings of old speeches adding textures to Powell’s flotsam and jetsam. The vocals are treated as another instrument in the mix, being processed, distorted, and altered instead of acting as the vessel for some deep message. Stunning opener “Nearly Nautical” blends violent guitar stabs with harsh noise, introverted vocals, and a double-tracked tambourine as its backbeat in such a way that you’re instantly reminded that they don’t call it “shoegaze” for nothing. “Carrington Event” recalls Spiritualized on a massive comedown, while “Covenant” is a blurry, beat-driven trance that’s almost like sleeping while you’re still high. The lone pure-pop song on the record is “Fallout Pattern”, which is antedated by forty-five seconds of sleepy-eyed ambience and a barely-audible dissertation. The track is reminiscent of Ecstasy and Wine-era MBV, but peppered with Powell’s own musical vision. There are a variety of different sounds and textures on Mercator Songs, and none of them feel wasted or frivolous, which is a staggering achievement for a drone record.

With Altered Zones capitalizing on the inherent “coolness” of outlier genres, it’s refreshing to know that there will at least be a handful of artists from these scenes who won’t be spotlighted prematurely. Meridian Signals shows that at least Michael Powell knows how to apply his vast knowledge of these genres.

Download:
MP3: Meridian Zones-“Fallout Pattern”